Local author Jesmyn Ward’s fictional work “Sing, Unburied, Sing” carefully crafts a story of the dead that speaks for the dying. The novel received the 2017 National Book Award, making Ward the first woman to win two National Book Awards for fiction.
In this novel of fear and familial love, Ward brings to bear a more refined version of the lyrical style that made her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel “Salvage the Bones” so powerful, and she uses it to address current social ills in the context of their bloody and tragic history.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” alternates between the voices of 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie and the ghost of a 12-year-old boy named Richie.
Much of the novel’s tension lies in Jojo and Leonie’s familial relationships. Jojo is the main caretaker for his young sister, Kayla, and the grandmother who acted as his mother throughout his childhood is dying of cancer. Jojo’s grandfather, Pop, is the only stable figure in his life.
Leonie’s life is ruled by addiction, both to drugs and to her incarcerated boyfriend Michael, JoJo and Kayla’s harsh biological father. This causes Leonie to neglect her children and become frustrated by Jojo and Kayla learning to function without her.
Jojo, Leonie and Kayla also all have the ability to see ghosts.
The two ghosts in the novel are Given, Leonie’s brother who was killed in a racially motivated shooting when he was a teenager, and Richie, a 12-year-old boy who died violently while incarcerated with Pop in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman.
When Leonie receives a call from Michael saying he is being released from prison, the relative stability the family had achieved is turned on its head. In an attempt to force her family together, Leonie brings Jojo and Kayla on a miserable drive from one end of the state to the other to pick up Michael when he is released.
At Parchman, Jojo meets the ghost of Richie, about whom he has heard many stories from Pop. While the cruelties and prejudices of Parchman are apparent through the stories of other prisoners, they reach new and appalling heights in the story of the 12-year-old African-American boy who suffered and died in the Mississippi prison system.
While the narrative details of the ghosts, Given and Richie, can feel heavy-handed at times, the ghosts themselves are powerful tools that convey Ward’s message about the ubiquity and brutality of racism in the American South with a force that would not have been accomplished without them.
A billboard the group passes on the way to Parchman reads “Protect life” and depicts a human fetus. Seeing this billboard through the eyes of Jojo, who has been unloved by his parents and stereotyped by society to the point of dehumanization, is heartbreaking. In the light of his uncle Given’s violent death and the subsequent failure of the justice system — his death was explained away as a hunting accident — it is even more so.
Richie’s story fully realizes the injustices of the legal system and Southern society in dealing with people of color, especially when those people are children.
Richie recounts to Jojo his experiences after death, saying, “How could I imagine Parchman would pull me to it and refuse to let go? And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once?”
Elements of their story, mostly the painful elements, are embodied by the multitude of ghosts that appear to Jojo and Kayla at the end of the novel. Their suffering, however, is not without redemption. The young Kayla soothes these victims of violence with a song that, while incomprehensible to Jojo and Pop, produces in the ghosts “something like relief, something like remembrance, something like ease.”
Through this, Ward produces a compelling commentary on the sensationalized acts of racial violence that have taken place over the past few years. She writes from a place of genuine compassion that resonates throughout the novel, creating deeply empathetic characters who live out a painfully relevant narrative.